The B-17 Flying Fortress served the Allied cause around the globe during World War II. Perhaps most famous for its Eighth Air Force raids on Germany and occupied territories, the B-17 was legendary for its ability to take punishment and return with its crew. Over 12,700 of Boeing's long-range bombers were built by men and women in U.S. factories by the end of the war.
Drawing Board Heroes
The B-17 was built to be tough. From the beginning, Boeing's president, Claire Egtvedt, had envisioned the bomber as an "aerial battleship." During the war, many B-17s limped home with terrible damage that would have destroyed lesser aircraft. Much of the credit goes to a young Boeing engineer named Ed Wells who worked on the bomber's preliminary design. Wells converted Egtvedt's ideas into the brawny bomber that brought aircrews home alive.
Our Boeing B-17, the only flyable B-17 F-model left in the world
Our B-17's resurrection has been ongoing since 1991. Nearly two decades later, the restoration process, by a local, all volunteer force, is still underway. But there is a 48-year history prior to The Museum of Flight's acquisition that is as interesting as the plane's recent past. Whether as a memorial in a park, a fire fighting operator, crop sprayer, air tanker, or movie star, this B-17 has had anything but a static life. Our airplane began life here in Seattle, a mile north of the Museum, in Boeing's Plant II on February 13, 1943. Accepted into the Army Air Force as 42-29782, the plane was modified in Wyoming and then assigned training units at Blythe Field and then McClellan Field, both in California. A month later, 42-29782 worked its way back to Washington, flying training flights at Moses Lake. During one such flight the right main wheel came off and our B-17 spent some time in the shop with damage to the right wing and engines #3 and #4.
In January 1944, 42-29782 left for the European Theater. While it didn't see combat, it stayed in Britain for three months. Then in March of '44, 42-29782 returned to the States. It would visit overseas again, but not in a military capacity. The B-17 remained with the Army Air Force at Drew Field in Florida through the end of the war. On November 5, 1945, it was withdrawn from service and shipped to Altus, Oklahoma, for disposal.
There 42-29782 sat until 1946, when the War Assets Administration transferred the airplane to Stuttgart, Arkansas, for display as a War Memorial. Stripped of its turrets, guns, and other war-making items, it nested in a small park for the next five years. With only "Great White Bird" painted on the nose, the plane sat derelict until 1953 when the U.S. Government turned over title to a pair of brothers for $20,000. Now a civil aircraft, the Biegert brothers received the new serial number N17W. The plane was completely overhauled into flying condition and converted to an aerial sprayer. Among other things, the ex-bomber was used for spraying DDT.
It remained in the spraying capacity until 1960 when it was leased for fighting forest fires. Soon after, the plane was sold to an air tanker unit, which used N17W as a tanker through 1968. That was when our plane started it illustrious movie career...
Appearing in the movie 1,000 Plane Raid in 1968, N17W saw its first action in what would be three Hollywood features. The film Tora Tora Tora in 1969 came next and N17W’s acting career ended in 1989 with the movie Memphis Belle, starring Matthew Modine and Harry Connick, Jr. This final movie, shot on location in England, required more than 50 hours of flying time. In order for the director to give the illusion of many B-17s in the scenes (long before computer generated graphics), our plane was painted with one scheme on the left side and a different scheme on the right.
Meanwhile, from 1968 to 1985, Mr. Don Clark became the pilot of the aircraft. It continued to do various spraying, fire fighting, and tanker jobs. But its missions also included flights to Hawaii, Alaska, and England. In 1988, with a new owner named Robert Richardson, top and bottom turrets were installed and the plane became based at the Museum of Flight for the first time. After its quick spell with the Memphis Belle film shoot in England, the B-17 came back the Museum for good and its restoration began in 1991.
Although attractive enough for Hollywood, the B-17 was in tough shape when the Museum's restoration volunteers inherited it. To make the plane museum quality, to have it in its original military configuration, and to make it fully certified by the FAA, a lot of work was needed. All wartime equipment had been stripped off the craft, the plumbing was in terrible shape, the oil tanks were cracked and dripping, and the windows leaked. Holes had been cut into the bulkhead for parts that were no longer there and the chemicals and water that had been used for spraying had seriously corroded most of the bottom of the fuselage. These were just a few of the thousands of challenges the restoration crew would face in the coming years.
The B-17 is currently off-site in a local hangar. It will stay there through the winter and return to the spot in front of the Museum this spring.